Note: While care has been taken to ensure this review contains as few spoilers as possible, if you’re looking to go into The Super Mario Bros. Movie completely fresh, we’d advise just scrolling down to the bottom and reading the review conclusion!
It’s hard to believe it’s been 30 years since Nintendo last entrusted its most precious IP to Hollywood to produce a big-budget film. Well, given some of the sentiment towards 1993’s Super Mario Bros. maybe it isn’t so hard to fathom the lengthy dry (dry) spell, but it certainly makes this new occasion all the more monumentous. Yes, Mario is back on the big screen and this time it’s by way of a team-up with Illumination, of Minions fame, for a 3D-animated adventure.
If you’ve been paying any attention to the pre-release marketing for the film, you’ve probably got a pretty good idea of what’s going on here, story-wise. I’m obviously not going to touch on too many plot points for the sake of not spoiling anything, but the basic gist is this – Mario and Luigi are trying to boost their struggling Brooklyn plumbing business when they wander into a massive network of pipes underneath the city. Here, they stumble upon a mysterious green pipe (you know the kind) and are unceremoniously pulled from the real world into the “Mario” universe.
It’s here that the pair are separated, with Mario landing in the Mushroom Kingdom and Luigi in an altogether more dangerous realm controlled by the big bad Bowser, who’s just obtained the all-powerful Super Star. This naturally sets Mario on a mission to find his missing brother in the midst of Bowser’s war on the various realms, teaming up with Toad, Princess Peach and eventually Donkey Kong to take down the King of the Koopas – whose motivation for the hostile takeover is his amusingly-dreamy desire for a fairytale wedding with Peach.
What that means is that you’re essentially getting an Isekai-style romp through a number of recognisable Mario-verse worlds that’s as threadbare as many of the games it riffs on, a concoction of nostalgia-heavy set pieces loosely tied together by the gang’s journey to save Luigi and thwart Bowser’s marital obsessions. It very much comes from the “and then this happened” school of narrative, which might disappoint some hoping for a more inventive or subversive Super Mario story, but it gets the job done and does manage to scrape up a few memorable moments that aren’t simple nostalgia-bait.
Go into the film with the right expectations, and you’re bound to have an excellent time. Again, you won’t catch me spoiling any of them here but The Super Mario Bros. Movie is positively lousy with gags and references to everything Mario. Just about the entire history of gaming’s most recognisable character is represented in some form, from direct nods to characters or themes from the enormous back catalogue of Mario games and media to blink-and-you’ll-miss-them sight gags and deep cuts.
Younger audiences will catch the blatant riffs on modern Mario platformers and games like Super Smash Bros. and Mario Kart, and enjoy plenty of the slapstick humour that Illumination’s regular animated movie output is known for, while older viewers will no doubt have a blast doing the ol’ “Leo DiCaprio pointing at the screen” meme when things get super retro.
It was always going to be dangerous territory making a big-budget animated Super Mario Bros. film that relies so heavily on nostalgia and in-jokes to please audiences, but Nintendo and Illumination have absolutely nailed it here, with The Super Mario Bros. Movie feeling far more like a celebration of the mustachioed plumber’s long and diverse history than a soulless cash grab. My only gripe in this department is that a couple of very exciting inclusions that had been hinted at in the marketing amount to little more than barely-there flashes of locales. By far the film’s biggest success is how well and how often it integrates the logic of most Mario games into its world, often to amusing effect.
It also looks positively gorgeous. Nintendo has done well to attach itself to a 3D animation powerhouse like Illumination, who’ve really nailed the assignment when it comes to bringing these iconic characters and locations to life in the highest quality we’ve ever seen. It would have been a heck of a challenge to balance staying true to the relatively simple visuals that fans know while making sure there’s enough detail and expensive-looking sheen to satisfy a modern film audience, but the result is pitch perfect as far as I’m concerned.
If you’ve never bemoaned the lack of a more powerful successor to the Nintendo Switch before now, you will after seeing the Mushroom Kingdom rendered the way it is here.
It was always going to be tricky to tie these ubiquitous, often barely-vocal characters to such well known voices, but the casting decisions here are almost unanimously spot on (almost) with Jack Black’s Bowser in particular stealing the show and delivering some of the movie’s best scenes. Seth Rogen’s Donkey Kong is featured less heavily but also delivers in spades. Sure, this version of DK pretty much just sounds like Rogen, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to separate the two in my mind going forward. Oddly enough I was less enthused with Toad, played by Keegan-Michael Key putting on a very strained voice that’s seemingly then been pitched up in post.
Everyone else is great – Anya Taylor-Joy does Peach justice and Fred Armisen is a delight as Cranky Kong. I almost think picking Pratt as Mario was a conscious decision to keep him as unremarkable and inoffensive as possible, so if that was the plan it’s definitely worked. Say what you will about Pratt, but he certainly knows how to make as little impact, negative or positive, as possible. Charlie Day takes an excellent crack at Luigi though, and the extended, Brooklyn-ite Mario family is thoroughly entertaining in the few scenes they’re a part of – to the point that I wish there’d been even more of their real-world shenanigans here.
Even when the plot takes a backseat to the film’s need to give you as much Mario universe as possible for your buck, there’s no denying every frame is magical, and every musical motif behind it is equally so. The Super Mario Bros. Movie’s soundtrack sits firmly in the “extremely Hollywood renditions of familiar tunes with occasional sprinklings of licensed music” territory that you might have gleaned from the trailers but it did absolute numbers on the nostalgia parts of my brain throughout and I imagine I won’t be alone.
I’m not entirely sold on some of the pop song choices – Bonnie Tyler’s Holding Out For A Hero must have bigger guns than Donkey Kong for all the animated film montages it’s carried at this point – but that’s quickly made up for by a wholly original song that’s sure to have a viral moment once the film is out there.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie is exactly what you'd expect, sometimes for worse but overwhelmingly for the better. It's a no-frills, digestible adventure that's absolutely jam-packed with nods to the immense history of Nintendo's favourite plumber, and crucially it features all the charm and fun that's fundamental to delivering that nostalgia in a meaningful way. There's at least a little something for everyone, young or old, gamer or not, but go in ready to celebrate 40+ years of Mario and Nintendo history and you'll have a blast.